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David Mimno: Big data-digitizing humanist

David Mimno, assistant professor of information science, is a prime example of the type of educator Ezra Cornell had in mind when he founded Cornell – one who combines fundamental knowledge with practical applications. In Mimno's case, this means a teacher who interweaves classics and the humanities with computers and data science to create collaborations that benefit both scholarship and students.

Mimno was interested in computational social sciences before he even knew the field existed. "I was always a history nerd and a computer geek," he recalls. "I realized I didn't have to choose. I could use my undergraduate classics major and combine it with a Ph.D. in computer science, and that was the toolkit I needed to most benefit scholarship."

He uses mathematical formulas to detect patterns in historical documents and literature and teaches the popular course Text Mining for History and Literature. "I like to contrast what people think is going to happen when you apply computers to literature [with] what really happens. A lot of the anxiety is that computers will miss the nuances of culture, but what actually happens is it's often the humans who will miss the subtle patterns as there is only so much their minds can memorize and process," he says.

Mimno is currently working with researchers at UCLA on reclassifying large volumes of Danish folktales. With the ability to digitize the 50,000 stories and count and classify the words, the researchers can take each story and compare it with similar stories and volumes. "We can reconstruct the ambiguity the original collector had in cataloging because we don't have the constraints he was facing," Mimno says.

"The study of culture, history and literature – everyone has a stake in [it]," says Mimno. "The same can be said of machine learning and data science. Algorithms affect us daily as we use social media, our nation's infrastructure and even our food supply. One of my motivations is showing how computation can benefit overall academic scholarship that helps find solutions for world problems."

Mimno was attracted to Cornell because of the friendly atmosphere and the ability to cross disciplinary boundaries. As a teacher, he most likes hearing from students that they are actually using things they worked on in class. "We have the monumental task of trying to train people to operate in a world that we fully expect they themselves will create," he says.

– Leslie Morris